Before he was fired for making sexist remarks regarding a female linesman (linesperson?), British footie pundit Andy Gray was most noted in recent years for his claim that Barcelona and Leo Messi would "struggle in a cold night at the Britannia Stadium" in Stoke.* Gray’s line of thinking is apparently that it is hard to play slick passing football against a physical opponent in the rain and that the Iberian Peninsula receives no precipitation.
* – Gray’s claim is idiotic for a host of reasons, but the most obvious is that Barca have played just fine in adverse weather conditions. Leaving aside the fact that there are parts of Spain that get very cold, Barca played crunch road games in the Champions League at Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Kiev in November and December 2009, getting a draw in Russia and a win (with Messi scoring) in Kiev. There are few, if any climates in European football that are harsher than trips into the former Soviet Union for games at the end of the group stage.
Gray’s Cro-Magnon outlook has been lampooned far and wide, but the best skewering came yesterday from Rob Smyth in The Guardian. Here is Smyth taking Gray to his logical conclusion:
Yes, Xavi can thread the ball through the eye of a needle at will, but can he handle a bit of needle? Sure, Lionel Messi can play keepy-uppy for half an hour with the little toe on his left foot, while also playing Tetris and debating the merits of a capitalist culture. That's nice for him. But could he manage it for 30 seconds during a damp crépuscule in deepest Staffordshire? Surely it's time for Fifa to test this hypothesis and arrange an annual match between Stoke and a World XI.
Better still, some boffin could surely simulate a match between an all-time World XI and the current Stoke side. OK, Diego Maradona spent 15 years thriving against some of the most malevolent swine ever to roam the green, but how many 50/50 balls did he win against Mamady Sidibe? Exactly.
It's inevitable that any such match would end 2-0 to Stoke, with Rory Delap's long throws creating both goals for Kenwyne Jones, one off each nipple from a combined distance of 0.00002 yards.
There is no real reason for restricting the Stoke Question to football. What Jesus Christ did with the loaves and fishes and the five thousand was admirable, Jeff, but could he have done it in the midst of a zesty downpour in the Potteries? Scarlett Johansson is one of the world's most formidably sexy women, granted, but could she seduce a fortysomething called Trevor, who still lives with his parents, in a Stoke pub on a Tuesday night when he's preoccupied with the darts on the telly and a two‑for‑one offer on purple WKD? Would Pippa Middleton's bum look big in Stoke? Could Josiah Wedgwood really have cr ... oh, never mind.
I was reminded of Gary’s comments when I read Brady Hoke's remarks at the Big Ten's media day. Hoke’s steadfast commitment to refer to Ohio State as “Ohio” is a little annoying. It’s hard to imagine a more juvenile, message board-level taunt than by calling an opponent by the incorrect name.* Hoke is going to have little credibility when he lectures Michigan players on not taunting opponents when he is engaged in exactly that behavior in press conferences.** Moreover, Ohio State has owned Michigan for a decade, so Hoke needs to have some success against the Buckeyes before he starts tweaking them. Right now, it just comes off as sour grapes.
* – Yes, I am aware that Woody Hayes referred to Michigan as “that school up north.” There is a difference between a euphemism and actually getting the name wrong.
** – And you know that Hoke, as a staid Michigan Man and Carr disciple, isn’t going to let his players behave like Miami or FSU from the late 80s. I don’t expect Michigan to start stomping on midfield logos anytime soon.
While the references to “Ohio” are a little annoying, this line of thinking (paraphrased by MGoBlog) is really bothersome:
Why would you worry about changing schemes, when they were so successful last season? "Two sides of the ball in the game of football." As a defensive coach, when you play against a pro-style offense in practice, you build a toughness. This is a physical league, and you need to stop physical offenses.
Right, so just like Barcelona would not be able to play on a cold rainy night against players who get stuck in, Michigan cannot run the spread offense because then the defense will have no experience with defending against physical offenses. That makes perfect sense. Let’s take a gander at the defensive rankings from 2010 to test this little hypothesis. TCU was second nationally on defense and they run a variant of the Spread. (And remind me what happened when they played Manball Wisconsin in Pasadena? The same thing that happens most of the time when a big, physical team from the Big Ten takes the field in the Rose Bowl.) Ditto for #3 West Virginia. Florida and Oregon both had top tier defenses running the spread. OK, I have no idea what Florida was running last year, but the Gators also had excellent defenses in 2008 and 2009 when they were most definitely running the spread. Florida also had a great defense in 2006 when they were running a Leak-compromised version of the spread. Perhaps Hoke should ask his defensive coordinator if his 2006 Florida defense lacked toughness because they didn’t see a bevy of I-formation runs off tackle in practice. Or maybe Hoke should ask the athletic director of the newest member of the Big Ten if his defensive players all took up sewing because they didn’t see a pro-style offense every day. The spread is basically a better version of the old triple option offense. There’s no reason why it can’t be just as physical as a pro-style attack.*
* – And has Hoke considered the flip side of his theory, which is that his teams will now be unprepared to deal with spread offenses? You know, the offenses run by Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and in bastardized forms by Ohio State and (on occasion) Penn State?
I should be at the stage as a sports fan where press conference comments don’t bother me. They are often more for public consumption than they are a reflection of reality. Hoke may feel that the Michigan fan base is rejecting everything about the last three years and therefore that they’ll love comments in support of a pro-style offense.* San Diego State’s offense was not conservative or plodding last year. It’s also possible that Michigan will start out with both pro-style and spread elements and then as reality smacks Hoke and Al Borges in the face, they’ll emphasize the latter, i.e. the plays that gain yards, over the former, i.e. the plays that don’t.
* – To Michigan fans who think this way: please learn the difference between correlation and causation. Yes, the defense sucked during Rich Rodriguez’s tenure. No, the defense didn’t suck because of the offense that it saw in practice. The defense was bad because the players weren’t very good and they got lousy instruction from their coaches. Hoke and Greg Mattison can solve these problems without repudiating the one schematic approach that worked last year.
However, there is a third, more depressing possibility, which is that Hoke actually believes what he says. If you want a scenario that would ensure that Michigan doesn’t make a bowl game for the third time in four seasons, then how about this: maybe Hoke was willing to give Borges latitude to run a sophisticated offense when they were on a campus with palm trees, but now that they are in the porterhouse Big Ten, they are going to change the approach. Maybe Michigan is going to take a college version of Leo Messi and play route one long balls to him because that’s apparently the only approach that works on a cold night in Iowa City. Jerry Kill me now.